Russia probe may get new jolt with Yates, Clapper testimony to Senate panel

Credit: Jamie Dupree

Credit: Jamie Dupree

The Congressional probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections takes another step forward on Monday, with the first public testimony from former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who reportedly told the Trump White House of intelligence concerns about ex-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, centering on his contacts with Russian officials.

Here is some of what we might see on Monday afternoon before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee:

1. A renewed focus on former Trump aide Michael Flynn. Maybe the most anticipated part of Monday's testimony will be from former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who reportedly warned the White House of questions related to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and whether he told the truth about his contacts with Russian government officials. Yates, who was fired by President Trump for refusing to defend his first travel and refugee order, has not publicly told her story as yet. Yates reportedly told the White House of fears that Flynn could be at risk of blackmail by the Russians - several weeks before Flynn was fired; the White House said it was because Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence on the matter. Last week, FBI Director James Comey acknowledged that he had discussions with Yates about Flynn and his contacts with the Russian ambassador.

2. Will Yates discuss anything on Russia apart from Flynn? One of the unknowns about this appearance by Yates is whether her testimony will veer into any other parts of the investigation into links between Trump associates and Russia, or the general issue of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Yates was originally set to testify back in March before the House Intelligence Committee, but that was suddenly canceled by panel chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who later stepped aside from leading the probe of Russia's involvement in the elections. The White House also had sent Yates a letter warning of possible issues involving executive privilege, but denied they were trying to stop her from testifying. We'll see whether Yates creates new avenues of public inquiry, or not. Press Secretary Sean Spicer has made clear that the White House was not worried about anything Yates might tell the Congress.

3. Former DNI Clapper likely to zero in on Moscow again. The formal title of this hearing is "Russian Interference in the 2016 United States Election," and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is certainly a top witness to discuss the view of the U.S. Intelligence Community on that matter. Clapper has been clear from the beginning about his belief that the Russians were causing trouble. "The hacking was only one part of it," Clapper told Senators in January, adding that Moscow also used "classical propaganda, disinformation, fake news," as Clapper said the Russians were still using those tools to disrupt the U.S. political system. "I think the public should know as much about this as possible," said Clapper, who retired when President Trump took office.

4. Why isn't Susan Rice testifying at this hearing? Former Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice was not originally scheduled to be part of this hearing, but last week, Republicans asked her to join Yates and Clapper. Rice refused, and that prompted Republicans to hint that she is hiding something. "I am deeply disappointed that Ambassador Rice has declined to participate in this hearing," said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA). Republicans want to question Rice about "unmasking" the names of Americans caught up in incidental intelligence collection related to the probe of possible links between Russia and the Trump Campaign - and someone living at the White House has taken notice.

5. Will there be GOP counterattacks against Sally Yates? Watch for this before the hearing begins on Monday afternoon, during the hearing, and afterwards. There were already reports on Sunday that Republicans were ready to accuse Yates of being a Democratic Party operative, intent on undermining President Trump at any opportunity. We often ask in journalism when getting information from a source - does this person have an axe to grind? Yates is from Atlanta. She worked for a well known law firm there, King & Spalding. She was hired by Bob Barr - later a Republican Congressman - to work for him, when he was a federal prosecutor in Georgia, during the first Bush Administration. Then Yates moved up the chain of command in the Justice Department through the years - under both political parties - before being nominated by President Obama as both a U.S. Attorney, and then later as Deputy Attorney General. Democrats were already pushing back on Sunday.

6. Where is Congress going next on the Russia matter? This won't be the only public testimony for Yates and Clapper, as the House Intelligence Committee wants both of them to return for a public hearing soon, along with former CIA Director John Brennan. No date has been set for that appearance. No new public hearings have been set as yet by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Russia matter, though members of that panel have been going over to the Central Intelligence Agency to review materials reportedly related to the probe - it's not clear what they have seen, or where their probe is headed. The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee told CNN this past week that there was no evidence as yet of collusion between Trump associates and Russia over the elections. But that isn't stopping the investigation from moving forward.

7. What is the status of the FBI's Russia probe? FBI Director James Comey made clear several times at a hearing last week that he wasn't going to give any updates on what his agency's review had found or not found about Russia interference in the 2016 campaign, but he did give us one tidbit that wasn't publicly known - that the FBI is working with federal prosecutors not only at the Justice Department, but also with prosecutors working just outside Washington, D.C., in the Eastern District of Virginia. That is a federal district which is often involved in "prosecution of significant terrorism and espionage cases." Where is that quote from? From the website of the U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Virginia.

8. Many still believe there is nothing here but partisanship. When President Trump tweeted out something about the "Fake Media" and Russia on Sunday, the simple re-tweet that I made - noting it was happening a day before the next Congressional hearing about Russia and the elections - quickly garnered me a few accusations of bias. "What a bunch hypocritical hogwash from the lefties," one person wrote me on Twitter. "You r extremely biased," wrote another. This story still gets people on edge - on both sides of the political football - very, very quickly. We'll see how this week changes the dynamic.

Whether you think there is anything to this Russia story or not, Monday's testimony by Sally Yates is expected to push ahead the story of what ex-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was doing during the transition.

Stay tuned.